December 12, 2022
As SLPs, we know we are so much more than numbers on paper. We are doers, movers, and helpers with a wide variety of learners to support and, for that reason, quantifying our awesomeness gets pretty tricky. When our assignments are reduced, the number of our caseload, we are losing the full picture of what our work looks (and feels!) like. This is not only demoralizing, but ushers in feelings of overwhelm, guilt, and burnout.
Let’s lead with some definitions. According to ASHA:
Caseload refers to the number of students served by school-based speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and other professionals through direct and/or indirect service delivery options. Students on an SLPs caseload typically receive speech and language services within the special education or other instructional settings in schools through the following:
● Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)
● Individualized Family Service Plans (IFSPs)
● 504 plans
**Workload** consists of all the activities required to effectively manage caseload.
We can all agree that a 50-student caseload consisting of very basic speech-sound errors pales in comparison to a 50-student caseload with learners who have complex needs. Yet, on paper, 50 kids = 50 kids when using a caseload model. For this reason, many workplaces are adopting a workload model for the effective management of learner needs and SLP distribution.
ASHA has taken the stance that total workload activities required and performed by school-based SLPs must be taken into account to set caseload standards. Depending on your employment setting, you may approach setting a workload model differently.
Here are some questions that could guide your discussion:
1. What is the current workload problem?
2. What can be done to address the current workload problem and provide appropriate services to learners?
3. Who can help resolve the SLP workload issues? What advocacy strategies at the building, district, or state level will have the best chance of positively influencing SLP workload issues?
4. What is a reasonable action plan to address the workload issues?
Let’s break those down a little, with context from lived experience.
What is the current workload problem? In our case, in our department of 50 SLPs, the only measure administration had to give us our assignments was to look at our list of IEP students. That data could be pulled easily and made sense to them. At the time, I worked in a building (part time) that had 20+ complex communicators and was still operating a caseload of 60+ students. It was unmanageable and, unfortunately, I wasn’t an anomaly. Our problem was students with significant disabilities were being compared to students with simple speech sound errors. And this didn’t feel good.
We also didn’t have a way to measure or track workload. We had how things “felt,” but no concrete data beyond the IEP numbers to fall back on. When someone was “on fire,” this was too subjective for anyone to take notice unless their IEP numbers crept into the 80s or higher (non-caseload cap state.)
What can be done to address the current workload problem and provide appropriate services to learners?
Based on the information described above, we formed a committee of SLPs to start digging into existing options. At the time, ASHA did not yet have their workload calculator in place, but some states had just started tinkering with measuring workload, and we explored their tools. Another group of SLPs in our state was focusing on the same content and was starting to have success so a lot of our original information came from partnering with them. A simple google search will yield a few options SLPs have tried.
Our first goal was to define what the baseline job responsibilities per student would be. The assumption is that all IEP students have one meeting a year, with more responsibility (time) necessary when the student is speech-only and case managed by the SLP. We calculated the average number of minutes provided to ALL students in the 17 districts served and that became the baseline number of minutes served, therefore any additional minutes were worth more. We quantified consultation time (when written into the IEP), and factored in extra time for re-evaluations, AAC use, and full and individual evaluations. We also calculated average mileage, as well as average buildings served, and this non-learner specific data goes into the overall workload score.
ASHA digs significantly deeper into each workload activity in their calculator. In our case, we wanted everything exactly tied to time as outlined on the learners’ IEP. This would allow less subjectivity and get data as objective as it could be.
Who can help resolve the SLP workload issues? What advocacy strategies at the building, district, or state level will have the best chance of positively influencing SLP workload issues?
We ran our first iteration of our workload matrix coupled with some subjective surveys analyzing the “feel” of the workload to start to denote what our healthy range of scores should be. Our first matrix was done with SLPs emailing the workload committee their spreadsheets, LOTS of math, and a whole group of left-brained humans trying to make sense of right-brained numbers.
After gathering and playing with our data for a year, we approached our administration and explained the importance of this work and what the data was showing us. We talked about how this would help with real-time assignment shifting and problem solving, and were able to back up our feelings of overwhelm (or underwhelm) through the data. Because a big portion of administration work each spring was making assignments, we shared how easy this would make that process. By speaking their language, we got quick buy in. Fast forward a few years, and now we make our own assignments, using data provided by our workload matrix.
What is a reasonable action plan to address the workload issues?
Eight years in, our matrix certainly looks different. For one, we partnered with the data team and have a beautiful tool that auto-collects and sorts SLP data and allows us to quickly analyze and problem solve using objective data. Our administration backs the use of the tool, and we’ve added full-time employees (FTEs) to our department due to our demonstrated learner need.
Now, monthly, we look at the data and address workload issues quickly and efficiently. We know which SLPs have time to give, which don’t have time to breathe, and where we can make changes quickly to support one another.
Notice, I said eight years. None of this was quick, and we certainly had some growing pains (“we have to fill out ONE more form??” being a common one.) We now have a full department who embraces using a workload model for assignments and understands any mid-year change in support needed. We start each year with equitable assignments and recognize that buildings with learners with complex communication needs or preschools may have lower caseloads, but certainly not workload.
If you are itching to try out a workload model, do it. We are doing incredibly important work as SLPs and that should be measured upon a full picture of our work…not by how many humans we serve.
About the Author
Abbie Keibler is a Speech-Language Pathologist at Mississippi Bend AEA in Bettendorf, Iowa. She is a non-traditional SLP graduate with undergraduate degrees in German and Psychology and taught preschool prior to (and during!) the acquisition of her Masters of Arts in SLP at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Currently, Abbie is in her 14th year working in the schools where she serves the preschool and elementary population and is a member of the Assistive Technology Department. Abbie is an adjunct instructor at St Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, and has a special interest in comprehensive literacy for complex communicators. When not “speech-ing,” you’ll find Abbie taxi-ing her children from activity to activity or reading. She reads over 80 fiction books a year as a necessary escape.